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The Morning Dispatch: The Violence in Afghanistan Hasn’t Stopped
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The Morning Dispatch: The Violence in Afghanistan Hasn’t Stopped

Plus: The latest in the FISA reauthorization debate.

Happy Thursday! If you’ve felt unbalanced recently and couldn’t quite put a finger on it—we may have an answer. Remember that glowing orb President Trump touched on his trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017? According to a new book by Ben Hubbard, it’s now in the United States’ possession and hidden away somewhere. We shudder to think what could happen if its power ends up in the wrong hands.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Hours after his disappointing showing on Tuesday, Mike Bloomberg announced he was ending his campaign and endorsing Joe Biden. “I’ve always believed that defeating Donald Trump starts with uniting behind the candidate with the best shot to do it,” Bloomberg wrote. “After yesterday’s vote, it is clear that candidate is my friend and a great American, Joe Biden.”

  • A Defense Department linguist in Iraq was charged with espionage after sharing classified information with someone tied to Hezbollah.

  • The Italian government announced it would temporarily close all schools and universities in response to the coronavirus outbreak in the country. Iran, too, will be closing schools for the next month. California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency after the first COVID-19-related death in the state. 

  • The House passed—415-2—a bill that would provide $8.3 billion in emergency funding to combat and contain the spread of COVID-19. The legislation now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to pass, and President Trump could sign it into law by the end of this week.

  • Chief Justice John Roberts admonished Sen. Chuck Schumer for appearing to threaten Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. He said the two will “pay the price” if they vote to curtail American abortion rights in a case currently before the Supreme Court. “Threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous,” Roberts wrote. “All Members of the Court will continue to do their job, without fear or favor, from whatever quarter.”

  • After initially dismissing calls from Democratic party officials to run against Sen. Steve Daines, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock appears to have changed his mind, making the race—pivotal to control of the Senate come 2021—much more competitive.

Can a Peace Deal Succeed Without Peace?

On Saturday, February 29, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Doha, Qatar for the signing of a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, he expressed optimism about the days ahead. “Today is an historic day for the United States of America and the American people. Today, we have taken a decisive step toward peace, real peace in Afghanistan,” Pompeo said, opening his prepared remarks. “Just as any worthy journey begins, it is a first step.”

Moments later, responding to a question from Christina Ruffini of CBS News, Pompeo said: “If you saw the pictures, Christina, from this week, it was glorious to watch Afghan people walking through the streets—they haven’t been able to do that—to see them dancing and celebrating peace.”

Four days later, on March 3, the Taliban conducted 43 separate attacks in Helmand province alone, according to a tweet from Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In a statement March 4, Nasrat Rahimi, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior in Afghanistan, said: “The Taliban conducted 30 attacks in 15 provinces against the civilians and the security forces over the past 24 hours, the attacks resulted in the martyrdom of 4 civilians and 11 soldiers. Another 18 civilians and soldiers were wounded.”

In all, the New York Times reports “76 attacks across 24 provinces” since the signing of the agreement Saturday. In one of those attacks in Kunduz, the “Taliban’s elite Red Unit stormed Afghan Army outposts there from several directions, killing at least 15 Afghan soldiers.” 

And yesterday, the U.S. finally responded, conducting an airstrike on Taliban fighters who were attacking an Afghan National Security and Defense Forces checkpoint. 

These Taliban attacks don’t violate the terms of the peace deal because the peace deal didn’t require the elimination of attacks committed by the Taliban. Violence was expected. The week preceding the finalization of the agreement was described as a “reduction in violence” period, shorthanded as RIV in discussions among the parties. The reduction in violence—and there was one—was meant to be a “confidence-builder” for the formal signing of the agreement and the days that followed. The latest surge in Taliban attacks, then, are a confidence killer.

But President Trump isn’t discouraged by the news. Speaking to reporters Tuesday about his phone call with Mullah Baradar, Trump said: “I spoke to the leader of the Taliban today, we had a good conversation, we have agreed there is no violence, don’t want violence.” And: “The relationship is very good that I have with the mullah.”

In a comprehensive analysis of the deal in his Vital Interests newsletter, Thomas Joscelyn, writes: “No deal is better than a bad deal. And make no mistake about it: The Trump administration’s accord is strikingly weak. It is not a peace deal. Do not call it that. The Taliban’s men are attacking Afghan military outposts and security forces as I write this. It was a bilateral withdrawal agreement—a desperate attempt to wash America’s hands of Afghanistan before the 2020 presidential election.” 

Joscelyn offers four specific ways in which a real agreement would have required the Taliban to demonstrate its willingness to distance itself from al Qaeda, none of which it has done. 

“In sum, the deal strengthens the Taliban and weakens America’s hand in the region. It legitimizes the Taliban in the eyes of jihadists worldwide and among the Afghan people and it amounts to a betrayal of the many brave Afghans who have fought alongside U.S. troops over the last 19 years. And the spin on behalf of the deal from top Trump administration officials has the effect of diminishing the ongoing threat the Taliban—and its deep relationship with al Qaeda—presents to the U.S., its interests and allies.” 

Read the whole thing here and if you haven’t yet signed up for Vital Interests, you can do so here.

The Latest on FISA Reauthorization

In last Wednesday’s Morning Dispatch, we gave you a primer on Congress’s need to reauthorize parts of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this month, and the GOP effort to squeeze surveillance reforms into that reauthorization legislation. Well, it’s been more than a week since then—and the process still hasn’t moved forward at all. A planned legislative markup was canceled at the last minute by House Democrats last Thursday, and has yet to be rescheduled. A March 15 deadline looms, and the clock is running out.

Earlier this week, there was talk that congressional Democrats would attempt to hammer through a “clean” FISA reauthorization—one without any changes sought by Republicans—by attaching it to a piece of perceived “must-pass” legislation: an emergency bill funding federal efforts to combat the novel coronavirus. Republicans balked and Democrats evidently decided it wasn’t worth the risk—FISA-free coronavirus legislation passed the House yesterday. It’s unclear now whether sufficient time remains to go through the full markup process for FISA legislation after all, or whether Democrats will push for a short-term bill to buy Congress a few more weeks.

Meanwhile, Republicans are still hashing out a few intraparty differences. The two factions—surveillance hawks like Attorney General Bill Barr and civil libertarians like Sen. Mike Lee and Rep. Jim Jordan—still don’t see eye to eye on the best strategy for this month’s reauthorization. But in a Tuesday meeting, President Trump pressured both groups to come to an understanding in time to present a united front when it’s time to vote on the FISA package.

The biggest question on the Republican side remains the same as it’s been for weeks: Whether top presidential allies in Congress who are also surveillance hawks—Rep. Devin Nunes chief among them—will throw their weight behind real FISA structural reforms, or simply use the occasion as yet another soapbox to rail against the DoJ officials who abused the FISA process to surveil Trump campaign staffer Carter Page. Nunes has been saying for months that FISA reforms are needed—but unlike some of his colleagues, he still hasn’t endorsed a single actual reform policy beyond promised retributions against “dirty cops” if the GOP retakes the House this November.

“It’s important for people to know about FISA that the FISA court was put in because of abuse,” Nunes told Fox Business host Lou Dobbs this week. “FISA does a lot of good things. It keeps us safe. But at the same time, it can’t be used to target us.”

Does that mean Nunes will vote to strengthen citizens’ privacy rights when it comes to the FISA courts—breaking with his past history of voting against them? So far, he’s yet to say.

Worth Your Time

  • In yesterday’s Morning Dispatch, we briefly discussed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s crackdown on the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. In the Indian news website The Wire, Aamir Ali Bhat writes about what it’s been like living in Kashmir since the authoritarian changes went into effect: “All forms of internet services, mobile calling and landline connections were shut down. We were disconnected from each other and the rest of the world. A silence prevailed over the whole valley. It was the silence before the storm. Next day, we woke up to a curfew or we can call it a military siege, stricter and more threatening than what we had witnessed in Kashmir before. Streets, lanes and bylanes that connect one area with the other were sealed with barbed wires. Everywhere, only gun-toting paramilitary troops with orders to foil any kind of resistance were present on the roads.”

  • Over the last few months, we’ve contributed our fair share of skepticism to Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign. So it’s only just that we should share this piece from RealClearPolitics’s Howard Fineman, looking at the situation in another light: “When Bloomberg entered the race last November, the campaign of the Democratic Party’s presumptive front-runner, Joe Biden, looked to be going nowhere, and ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders seemed poised to storm the citadel. What was an Upper East Side ‘centrist’ business tycoon and former New York mayor worth $60 billion supposed to do? Bupkis?” 

  • This New York Times piece, about the effect coronavirus fears are having on travel and tourism industries, would be worth sharing for the headline alone: “What Happens in Vegas if No One Stays in Vegas?” But the whole thing is also an interesting read: “‘Vegas is the biggest unknown right now,’ said Steven Wieczynski, a gambling and leisure analyst at the financial services firm Stifel Financial. ‘If the coronavirus continues to linger and stays in the news, more conventions and group trips will get canceled. That’s what Vegas is known for right now.’”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Something Inspiring

A year ago, Jeopardy host Alex Trebek shared with the world his Stage IV pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Yesterday, he provided an update to fans on how he’s doing, tossing in some excellent life advice for good measure. Take 1 minute and 49 seconds to watch.

Toeing the Company Line

  • We have been instructed not to refer to Jonah’s Hump Day Epistle (🔒) as a G-File, so we won’t. But he wrote another one, and it’s well worth your time. He ruminated on the impending Biden/Bernie slugfest, and whether or not rooting for one over the other precludes you from being a “conservative.”

  • As we mentioned above, Thomas Joscelyn is out with another Vital Interests newsletter, this one breaking down why “no deal is better than a bad deal” when it comes to the Taliban. Steve, who himself wrote an excellent piece on the pact, calls it “the single best analysis of the Taliban deal [he’s] read.”

  • On the Dispatch Podcast this week, Sarah, Steve, Jonah, and David talk Super Tuesday, Biden’s comeback, the coronavirus, and the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban. Give it a listen here.

Let Us Know

MGM and Universal Studios announced on Wednesday they are delaying the release of No Time To Die—the latest installment in the James Bond franchise—to November due to the coronavirus.

In addition to the heartbreaking human toll, COVID-19 seems poised to disrupt events and institutions we have long taken for granted. Which potential intrusion into daily life concerns you the most?

  • The 2020 Summer Olympics being canceled.

  • Andrew not bothering to schlep into Dispatch HQ.

  • No March Madness tournament.

  • Handshakes being replaced by whatever this is.

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph of Mike Pompeo by Giusepppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.